They’re playing our song. Again.
On the heels of Clint Eastwood’s “Jersey Boys,” two new musical biopics about Rock and Roll Hall of Famers – in these cases, two of the most influential musicians of the 20th century – are due soon.
“Get on Up,” about the Godfather of Soul, James Brown, opens this week. “Jimi: All Is By My Side,” opens in September. Written and directed by John Ridley (the screenwriter of “12 Years a Slave”), “Jimi” stars André Benjamin of OutKast as cosmos-rocking Jimi Hendrix and Hayley Atwell as his girlfriend, Kathy Etchingham.
Projects about famous musicians have long been harmonious for Hollywood. They start with a built-in audience. They often come with a familiar rise-to-the-top template, or in the case of most rock movies, a crawl-to-the-bottom. And they’re catnip for actors: F. Murray Abraham, Adrien Brody, Jamie Foxx, Jennifer Hudson, Geoffrey Rush and Sissy Spacek are among the many who’ve taken home Oscars for such roles, and countless others have been nominated. But after the hype, how many such films have remained in viewers’ cinematic jukeboxes?
Portraying the life of any artist, especially a great one, is about as easy as writing an immortal song. How do mere mortals express the essence of the gods?
Most such efforts end on the rocks, but the siren song keeps filmmakers launching their ships.
Some do produce special moments, sort of the greatest hits of the genre, although many of those less the smash singles of the trailers, than more subtle gems. Like album tracks.
Think of Wolfgang “Amadeus” Mozart blithely destroying his admiring colleague’s pride, hopes and sense of self by casually rewriting – and drastically improving – a welcome march the colleague, Salieri, wrote in his honor. Worse, Salieri (Abraham in his Oscar-winning turn) is doomed to appreciate real genius. He completely understands just how dimly he glows beside the supernova that is Mozart.
But not every worthy musical biopic worships Olympians such as Mozart or Beethoven (“Immortal Beloved”). Three films set at the same time in recent British musical history fascinatingly capture the punk explosion and post-punk comedown.
“Sid and Nancy” concentrates on the grimy, doomed romance of Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious (Gary Oldman, in a star-making role) and American groupie Nancy Spungen (Chloe Webb). It vividly describes their downward spiral in the wreckage of the punk era, photographed by the great Roger Deakins. The Pistols’ first performance in the film is a ransacking of “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone,” capturing the spastic energy of that scene while expressing Vicious’ importance to the band – which was hardly musical.
“24 Hour Party People” is a relief in that it paints a picture of a rock train wreck, but with a lighter-than-usual hand. It’s about Tony Wilson, a TV reporter who started the Factory record label in Manchester, England. At an early Sex Pistols gig, Wilson points out to the viewer that, among the 40 or so in attendance are several eventual Factory stalwarts, including members of the Happy Mondays and Joy Division. It’s a very cool moment at the very birth of a scene.
Completing the triumvirate is “Control,” a personal film about Ian Curtis of Joy Division. It relates some of the same anecdotes as “24 Hour,” but from a different perspective. It also depicts Curtis discovering in his 20s that he suffers from epilepsy; he later learns a woman he knew with the disease has died after a seizure. The film then conveys the heavy percolation that leads to Curtis writing “She’s Lost Control” in response.
It’s often those small, human moments that make the films memorable. Jessica Lange earned one of her many Oscar nominations as Patsy Cline in “Sweet Dreams.” The film has been criticized for serious inaccuracies, but Lange’s work makes it feel real to us. When the unhappily married Cline and then-ardent suitor Charlie (Ed Harris) suddenly consummate their romance in his car, it feels bracingly real – especially its visceral aftermath.
Reese Witherspoon won an Oscar as sweet-as-pie June Carter in “Walk the Line,” but the Oscar-nominated Joaquin Phoenix also really delivers as Johnny Cash.
The biopic is less about the Man in Black’s music than his struggle with drugs and burning love for Carter. Early in their acquaintance, at a diner counter, an innocent remark by Carter makes the haunted Cash think deeply of his late, beloved brother for the first time in years. Phoenix’s realization of that simple moment, of being stopped in his tracks and realizing the effect this woman has on him, is a beautiful piece of acting.
“La Vie en Rose” features a nonlinear narrative and a transformative, Oscar-winning performance by Marion Cotillard as chanteuse Edith Piaf. Perhaps its most affecting moment comes when a warm, real-feeling dream of Piaf’s adored lover becomes the surreal-feeling reality of her staff shattering her world with the news of his death.
As to the new breed, “Get on Up” didn’t screen in time for advance press, but “Jimi” already has stirred controversy.
At least one major figure – Etchingham – loudly decries it as fiction. However, Benjamin – who learned to play guitar left-handed for the role and captures Hendrix’s idiosyncratic speaking cadence – does convey the blazing genius of the man on stage. After he blows his future manager’s mind in a small club, he tells the man, “Music is colors to me … with a little bit of science fiction.”
There are countless others worthy of note – “Cadillac Records” (mainly for Jeffrey Wright’s charismatic portrayal of Muddy Waters); “The Sapphires” (only loosely based on a true story despite being written by one of the principals’ sons, but charming as all get-out); “Nowhere Boy” (Anne-Marie Duff deserved an Oscar nomination as John Lennon’s mercurial mother, Julia); “Shine,” “The Doors,” “Ray,” “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” the playlist goes on and on and only grows.